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Investigation pending on illegal fundraising

HELENA - Bill Yellowtail, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a former Montana legislator, was suspended Friday from his $130,200-a-year job, pending an investigation into whether he illegally helped raise money for a Democratic congressional candidate from Missoula in 1998.

EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., announced Yellowtail's indefinite suspension from his post in Denver during an inquiry into alleged violations of the Hatch Act, a federal law banning campaign activity by federal government workers. The Wyola rancher and unsuccessful 1996 Democratic nominee for Congress will be assigned to "alternative duties" for 30 days and then be placed on leave without pay until further notice, the EPA said.

"Administrator (Carol) Browner and I take the requirements of the Hatch Act very seriously and have emphasized compliance by all employees - and particularly the agency's senior leadership - during frequent ethics briefings," wrote W. Michael McCabe, EPA acting deputy administrator in a memo to EPA's key officials.

"Administrator Browner and I believe that it is inappropriate for Bill to continue his responsibilities as regional administrator pending final resolution by (the Merit Systems Protection Board)," McCabe added. "Therefore, effective immediately, Rebecca Hamner will serve as acting regional administrator."

Yellowtail oversees the EPA Region 8 covering Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. He is the only regional administrator ever to face such a disciplinary action, according to an EPA spokesman.

The issue arose earlier this month when the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced it was filing a complaint against Yellowtail for breaking the federal law. It accused Yellowtail of illegally having his name signed to a 1998 fund-raising letter for Democrat Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, former Missoula County attorney who unsuccessfully ran for Montana's lone House seat at that time.

Yellowtail, said to be en route to his Montana ranch, couldn't be reached for comment Friday. He now has the opportunity to defend himself before the Merit Systems Protection Board against the charges. EPA said he has cooperated fully.

Deschamps said in an interview he is "shocked and disappointed" by the news of Yellowtail's suspension. He called the situation a travesty, adding that he feels terrible and a bit guilty.

"He's a great guy and if he did anything wrong, it was certainly due to inadvertence and perhaps a lack of sophistication of the inner workings of the Hatch Act, and plainly not done out of any criminal intent or with any malicious notions whatsoever," he said.

John Wardell, EPA Helena administrator, called the news unsettling. He said Montana EPA operations shouldn't be affected.

"I'm really disheartened, but that's just a personal reaction," he said. "I guess I'm just waiting to see how it plays out."

Rich Lathrop, news officer for the EPA regional office, said Yellowtail will return to Denver from his Wyola ranch next week. He said the minimum penalty for a violation of the Hatch act is a 30-day suspension and the maximum is permanent removal from office. It's possible Yellowtail will be restored to his post if found not guilty, he said.

Yellowtail's indefinite replacement, Hamner, will begin as acting administrator May 17. She is a 30-year-veteran of the EPA.

This is not the first time Yellowtail has faced trouble. Yellowtail himself was a candidate for Congress in 1996, losing to Republican Rep. Rick Hill by a 52 to 43 percent vote. At the time of his candidacy, revelations about his past surfaced including a felony burglary in college, a failure to pay child support for five years and spouse abuse.

Yellowtail was first appointed as regional administrator in January 1994. In March 1996, he resigned from the post to run for Montana's congressional seat. He was reappointed in September 1997.

Regardless of the suspension, Yellowtail isn't guaranteed his current post after the end of the year since the next president can appoint a new director.

According to the special counsel, Yellowtail received training on the Hatch Act when he first began at EPA and later on he and his staff stated they took care to avoid violations of the act.

Yellowtail, a Crow Indian and Dartmouth College graduate, was a state lawmaker for nine years and was one of the few American Indians to serve in the Montana Legislature.

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